There’s no place like Homestead

The famous and luxurious Homestead resort in western Virginia began as a humble inn 250 years ago.
The famous and luxurious Homestead resort in western Virginia began as a humble inn 250 years ago. Omni Hotels & Resorts

Before John Hancock put his now-iconic signature on the Declaration of Independence in 1776, an 18-room lodge in Hot Springs, Va., had been providing rooms to weary travelers for a decade.

This year – much larger, grander and decidedly swankier – the Omni Homestead Resort is marking its 250th birthday with a whole year of celebration. History is always on display at The Homestead – there’s a guided history tour at 10 a.m. each day – but to celebrate the semiquincentennial, each day there’s a party in the Great Hall at 2:50 p.m. Tea and coffee are served, along with cake – a different flavor every day for each of the 366 days of 2016.

But The Homestead’s history is about more than cake. The original lodge was on Colonial land-grant property. Visitors have included presidents (both sitting and former) and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. According to legend, the royals stayed for a month, but weren’t so prompt about paying their bill. Woodrow Wilson, who married for the second time while he was president, spent his honeymoon at The Homestead, which is about 215 miles from Washington. With two exceptions (Obama and Kennedy), every president since Calvin Coolidge has visited the resort. Bill Clinton was the last sitting president to visit; George W. Bush played golf there in 2015. Harry Truman wasn’t a golfer, but he enjoyed taking a brisk morning walk along the paths of the Old Course, one of two golf courses at The Homestead.

In all, 24 presidents have stayed at The Homestead. On his way back from a meeting to finalize plans for the University of Virginia in 1818, Jefferson stopped in Bath County to soak in the recuperative waters of the area’s natural warm springs. He enjoyed it so much he stayed for three weeks. One day, he rode to The Homestead and “took the waters” at the resort’s natural-spring pools, today known as the Jefferson Pools at Warm Springs. The pools are part of The Homestead but are located in nearby Warm Springs, Va.

You can soak in those same pools today, but don’t expect spa-level luxury. There are two pools, one for men and one for women. The octagon-shaped men’s building dates from 1761 and is the oldest spa structure in the United States. The women’s pool was built in the mid-1800s. They’re still 19th-century spartan: Both are fed by pipes that carry naturally warm water in; both are ringed by narrow plank floors and small changing rooms. You’ll find no fluffy towels or robes. Bathers are usually naked.

Jefferson, who paid a princely $2.12 for bathing and a meal, wouldn’t recognize the place today. The Homestead is a 500-room resort surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains in far southwest Virginia, less than 30 miles from the West Virginia border. Turn off U.S. 220 and make a couple of short turns before you look down a hill and spot the Georgian-style red-brick Homestead and its 12-story clock tower. If front porches stand for Southern hospitality, this is certainly the real thing: The front porch here is 250 feet wide with rocking chairs, topiary and enormous Corinthian columns.

At the Homestead, you don’t walk into a lobby. The 215-foot-long space with 14-foot ceilings is called the Great Hall, and even though it is cavernous, it somehow seems cozy, with loveseats and wing chairs grouped in front of fireplaces. This is where guests enjoy cocktails, cocoa or iced tea just about any time of day. The Great Hall is the hub of activity at the resort; it divides the newer (1970s) section from the older one. The history tour departs from there, and every night, classic and family films play in the resort’s theater, just steps away.

When you check in at The Homestead, you’re given a resort guide with a map of the hotel and the property. You’ll need it. Getting to your room (tip: always ask for one in the older section) involves long hallways, elevator rides and more long hallways. Standard rooms are large by most hotel standards. Because you’re smack in the middle of the mountains, most rooms have a gorgeous view.

No matter what season you visit, the spring-fed, naturally heated indoor pool is a must. (The outdoor pool is a more traditional resort choice and includes a water park with lazy river.)

Most guests at The Homestead start their day with the breakfast buffet in the Main Dining Room. Come hungry and stay late because this buffet is the dining highlight at the resort. It includes fresh juices and organic juice blends, the resort’s signature doughnuts and pastries, local bacon and sausages, eggs Benedict and an omelet station, assorted fruits, yogurts and steel-cut oatmeal, grits with a variety of toppings, cold cuts, pancakes and waffles. The price is steep: $29 per person. A lot of guests include a breakfast package with their reservation to get a slight price break.

The Main Dining Room and Jefferson’s Restaurant offer upscale dinner fare. You can find sandwiches, pizza and salads at Casino Restaurant or Sam Snead’s Tavern. (The golf legend was born in Bath County and died in Hot Springs in 2002.)

There are plenty of opportunities to walk off that breakfast buffet. There’s golf and swimming, of course, as well as biking or Segway tours on resort trails, bowling, tennis, horseback riding, fly fishing, archery and skeet-shooting. Trail maps are available if you’re interested in a self-guided hike over the resort’s 2,300-acres.

Through 2016, the resort will spotlight its history with theme months – February was Presidents; March was Fashion and Entertainment; April honors transportation, and May puts golf in the spotlight. Housekeepers leave a new “fun fact” for guests each day that is related to the month’s theme. During the anniversary year, the South Parlor just off the Great Hall has become a mini-museum with photos and memorabilia highlighting the resort’s history.

Quite a few of the presidents who have visited The Homestead did so before they took office – among them, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and George H. W. Bush. That’s not going to happen with the current crop of contenders, says Eileen Judah of the resort’s public relations office. Not a single one of the 2016 candidates has been a guest at The Homestead.

If you’re going

The Omni Homestead Resort is at 1766 Homestead Drive in Hot Springs, Va., about 250 miles from Charlotte.